The Child Abuse Monster, coming to a neighborhood cafe near you soon

Dateline: Mon 31 Jul 2006

We are at Patachou's restaurant on the Northside, at 49th and Pennsylvania, mid-morning on Tuesday July 11. We are tired and I imagine we look it -- a new mother with a week-old baby and swollen breasts running with milk, not to mention all the other sore parts on her body; the fat baby, seven days old, sound asleep in a full-size stoller the little mother has maneuvered into the restaurant; the big brother Gabriel, 5, who is the designated helper, and me.

I'm the Grandma. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

We've just come from a 9 a.m. one-week baby checkup at the pediatrician's near Methodist Hospital. For a treat -- and we need a treat -- we decide to go to Patachou for breakfast.

Gabriel, the big bro, is all male, right down to his occasional Sponge-Bob inspired karate chops, "God-dangit!" epiteths and fascination with silver fish bugs in the basement of his new house. So of course he does not politely say, "My goodness gracious, I'm certainly hungry."

Instead, he plops down, wiggles and explodes: "I'M REALLY STARVIN' AND I WANNA EAT SOME FOOD RIGHT NOW!" They could almost hear him out in Putnam County.

I'm a very loose grandma, a member of the "your child's self-esteen" generation, but even I was a little taken aback. His mother, an Asian madonna but a stickler for manners and discipline, swiftly corrected him -- something like, "Gabriel Holladay, you don't act that way in a restaurant. You settle down right now!"

Did I say we were all weary? Right away Gabe's chin quivered and the tears started pooling in his big dark-brown eyes. One is reminded of the that pathetic cat in "Shrek" -- raw aggrieved emotion is plastered all over his trembling little face.

His mom, not one to fool around, said in a fierce whisper if he didn't "stop this crap," we were leaving right then and there. The result was more waterworks and near-blubbering. So she scooped him up and (appropriately) took him to the back of the restaurant where they vanished into the bathroom.

That's when the old Child Abuse Monster visited, in the form of the seemingly nice lady at the next table. She was middle-aged, sitting alone, reading "Kite Runner," and not one to keep her opinions to herself. I admit it -- maybe I radiated discomfort. I'm not keen on a scene that I'm part of.

Tsk, tsk, she muttered. "Do you know there are toys in the back of the restaurant for him to play with?" Obviously we didn't look like we'd ever been to Patachou before. I assured her we knew that.

But she couldn't leave it alone. "If he doesn't get to cry as a child, he's going to be in therapy as an adult," she said, sagely.

Before I could get the image out of a 30-year-old Gabe paralyzed in a shrink's office, an emotional cripple, strung out on drugs, a junkie, all my fault, she added, darkly, "You don't think she's spanking him back there, do you?"

"Oh, God, no," I said, sincerely, because I knew she was not.

Mother and son came out. The woman went back to "Kite Runner" and looking smug but refusing eye contact. I whisked Gabe next door to Hamaker's drug store to buy him some gum and divert his 5-year-old brain. Grandma, always the enabler.

We came back and all was seemingly well. The food came, everybody ate -- quietly -- and we left. Gabe was fine by this time, his stomach full of French toast and orange juice.

Out in the car, my daughter-in-law -- she is named Joy and she is -- said, "I'm never going back there again." Turns out while Gabe and I were at the drug store, the lady asked Joy if she knew about the toys in the back of the restaurant.

"I know," Joy said.

"Well, he could play with the toys," said woman.

"He doesn't deserve to play with any toys right now because of how he's acting," Joy replied.

"Well, I thought he was acting just fine," said Kite-Runner nervy woman.

The post-mortem was quite a bit of discussion with family and friends about this incident -- why would somebody interfere with a mother correcting a child? I put forward my social-liberal-bullshit theory -- Indiana has such a high rate of child abuse, maybe she really thought she was being helpful.

And maybe she did.

Along those lines, it seems like everybody can relate to a scene like this with a first-person story. NPR's Diane Rehm in 2003 devoted a show to the merits -- and the downside -- of speaking out when one witnesses what one thinks is an abusive situation. Rehm said she saw a mom kicking a little boy in a parking lot once. She hesitated but then felt obligated to intervene.

"Is there something you need help with? Children are not to be kicked." The husband quickly came to his wife's defense. Rehm then said she warned the mother, "The next time, remember. I saw what she did." But then she worried if maybe she'd made the situation even worse.

Here's the consensus regarding the Patachou story, from those I've talked to -- "Kite-Runner" was way out of line. Moms and dads have a responsibility and a right to discipline their own kids. A lot of this is cultural and probably linked to socio-economic status. Heck, back in the 1970s, a friend told me she would not even make her son apologize if he hit another child, "because if I made him do it, he wouldn't FEEL it."

That was the mindset then.

Final thought -- this woman could have made a difficult situation better if she had gotten off her high horse and complimented the little family. "My you must be hungry!!! Do you have a new little brother or sister? What beautiful children."

Instead, her self-righteousness left a bad taste in the mouth.

But the food was good, and I think we'll go back again. Wouldn't you?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this little slice of life.

Email me at ruth@ruthholladay.com

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